Cesar Chavez's Rabid Opposition to Illegal Immigration Not Covered in New Movie
Moviegoers who see "Cesar Chavez" when it opens today can expect a feel-good flick that portrays the Yuma-born legend as almost saintly.
The movie doesn't enlighten viewers about Chavez's intense opposition to "illegals" and "wets," as he called undocumented immigrants.
You may have heard that Chavez preached against illegal immigration, but "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez" by Miriam Pawel, a new book released in timely fashion this month by Bloomsbury Press, has the iconic Hispanic hero sounding at times like a typical nativist bigot and acting like a right-wing militia member.
As the comprehensive book reveals, Chavez's battle against illegal immigration and the undocumented immigrants themselves was one of his fundamental strategies in organizing farm workers.
After his success in organizing laborers and creating public awareness of horrific work conditions, by 1973 Chavez's United Farm Workers union was broke. The activists were desperate to keep support high for its boycott of grapes and lettuce.
Chavez "seized on immigrants as the latest explanation for why the union could not win a strike," Pawel writes.
With the help of UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, Chavez launched the "Illegals Campaign," which he believed was nearly as important as the boycott. He criticized President Nixon and the Border Patrol for letting in so many "wets," as he called them.
Under the campaign, he turned the UFW into an anti-illegal-immigrant spying organization. Union volunteers became dedicated to finding and identifying undocumented immigrants working on farms -- as well as those giving them aid and comfort. The information was turned over to the feds. While doing yoga "standing on his head," Pawel writes, Chavez gave 19-year-old Liza Hirsch the job of heading up the Illegals Campaign.
"Hirsch distributed forms printed in triplicate to all union offices and directed staff members to document the presence of illegal immigrants in the fields and report them to the INS," the books states.
Chavez believed that the campaign would help his supporters explain to the public why the boycott against grapes and lettuce wasn't effective: Farmers were hiring illegal workers who didn't care about the strikes or boycott.
A favorite line of Chavez's was, "If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight."
Chavez's "liberal allies" and Chicano activists didn't agree with the tactic. But Chavez clung resolutely to his beliefs, breaking ties with affiliated groups who wouldn't go along. His stubbornness resulted in mutinies, with some UFW field offices "refusing to cooperate" in tracking the undocumented workers.
Huerta supported the Illegals Campaign, but suggested Chavez should tone down the rhetoric. Some people find the terms "illegals" and "wetback" offensive, she reminded him.
"Chavez turned on Huerta angrily," the book says. "'No, a spade's a spade,' he said. 'You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They're wets, you know. They're wets, and let's go after them."
Huerta didn't return calls from the Phoenix New Times this week.